BY NATASHA BARSOTTI - For the fourth time in a year, Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma has spoken out against discrimination based on sexual orientation, his latest statement made before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Feb 29.

"Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is an area of concern on which we have given the perspective of Commonwealth values in various fora, including in this Council," Sharma said. "Our position continues to be that we oppose discrimination or stigmatization on any grounds, including those of sexual orientation."

Great . . . except for this disappointingly watered-down conclusion: "It is for member states to address incompatibilities between Commonwealth values and mostly inherited national laws in these areas."

"It is, in effect, a hands-off approach," UK gay rights activist Peter Tatchell complains. "Without serious pressure from the Commonwealth leadership, many member states will not abandon their homophobia and transphobia. Our argument is that 80 percent of Commonwealth countries are guilty of persistently violating the human rights of LGBTI people; it's therefore the responsibility of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to increase the pressure for the decriminalization of homosexuality and the legal protection of LGBTI against discrimination."

To be fair, Sharma has been the most publicly outspoken secretary-general the Commonwealth has had on the question of queer rights. Quite an achievement, Tatchell notes, but clearly Sharma is "nervous and cautious." 

Needlessly so, he believes. "It's time for him to be bolder, with the knowledge that there are LGBTI and human rights defenders in all Commonwealth countries who will support and applaud him." And who need to hear that support loudly, clearly, consistently.

Perhaps he should take a cue from his UN counterpart, South Korean-born Ban Ki-Moon, who just raised a ruckus for unabashedly urging Zambia to respect gay rights in a "people driven" constitution.

In response to a reporter's question following a meeting with Zambian President Michael Sata, Ban Ki-Moon said, "There is need to respect the rights of everybody, not only in Zambia but everywhere else in the world. I know that President Michael Sata supports the call for the respect of everybody's rights regardless of sexual orientation," The Times of South Africa reported.  

But a government spokesperson quickly tried to quash any notion that Zambia plans to decriminalize homosexuality. And brought out the tiredly oxymoronic we-are-a-Christian-nation, stop-trying-to-recolonize-us diatribe from the usual religious and anti-progressive suspects.

The program director of a group called -- irony of ironies -- Zambia Rainbow Coalition wants Ban to apologize for his queer-supportive statements and goes on to parrot the gay-is-a-mental-illness mantra. Too bad the group chooses to ignore its fifth goal, about establishing "a platform for all Zambians for their voices to be heard."

Hopefully Ban does not cave in, or even better, reiterates in the strongest terms his and the UN's intention of staying the course on this portfolio. Ditto Sharma.

The key to defending and advocating for queer rights in Africa is the work of local grassroots and human rights organizations, Tatchell emphasizes, adding that even as they must take the lead, institutions like the Commonwealth, the UN and Western governments should focus their attention on supporting such organizations to speak for themselves, through funding their offices and campaigns and by providing human rights training for their members.   

Evidence of courageous persistence of the African continent's queer activists is pervasive. So is evidence of the ruthless attempts to counter their activism. On Feb 23, some 500 people gathered near a radio station to oppose Liberian gay activist Archie Ponpon's campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.  Ponpon and a group of his followers were escorted off the premises by police called by the radio station's manager -- reportedly the third time Ponpon had to be rescued from angry gatherings.

In Uganda, a queer-rights workshop was raided and shut down by the country's state minister of ethics and integrity one week after the umpteenth reintroduction of the so-called "Kill the gays" bill.

"I have closed this conference because it is illegal. We do not accept homosexuality in Uganda, so go back home," the minister, Simon Lokodo, told the workshop participants, according to the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Lokodo also tried to arrest Kasha Jacqueline Nabagasera, a prominent queer rights activist and winner of the 2011 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, for reportedly attempting to thwart the minister's actions.

 And an event as seemingly innocuous as a beauty pageant is feeling the backlash over the squashing of queer rights on the continent.

"It is indeed sad that we have lost a delegate from the African continent," current Mr Gay World, South Africa's Francois Nel, said in a statement about the withdrawal of Mr Gay Zimbabwe, Taurai Zhanje, from this year's competition in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Africa needs a great deal of attention in terms of advancement of LGBTI rights, and it would have been very favourable to have full representation of the African continent in the competition. But nevertheless, my thoughts are in complete agreement with the response from Mr Gay World directors, that even just entering the competition is already a very brave and commendable achievement."

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